Capital of Portugal
One of Europe’s greatest hidden gems, Lisbon is a city of spectacular natural beauty, wondrous architecture and vast history. From its perch on the steep hillsides above the Rio Tejo, the Portuguese capital of Lisbon offers all the delights of other European capital without the fuss. It is the country’s star attraction, filled with majestic monasteries, gothic cathedrals, and quaint museums. The colorful cityscape is worth the trip alone, but the real delights to discover lie in the narrow lanes of the city’s backstreets. There, sunshine-yellow trams snake their way through the tree-lined streets, passing the old quarter’s public baths and tiny patio restaurants serving fresh bread and local wines while “fadistas” sing their traditional melancholic songs in the background.
Lisbon’s greatest treasures are its historic neighborhoods themselves. Baixa, the city’s downtown, contains the majestic Commerce Square and many of the city’s architectural wonders from ages long past. Rossio Square is the city’s cultural epicenter, home to the iconic Column of Pedro IV as well as a wide array of shops, galleries, and fine restaurants. Belém is one of the city’s most beautiful districts and home to Belém Tower, the Jerónimos Monastery, and many other stunning landmarks. Chiado and Liberdade Avenue, meanwhile, are Lisbon’s premier shopping districts and host a wealth of boutiques, galleries, cafes, and other upscale shops of every kind.
Nearby, visitors can feel the soul of Pessoa in 1930s-era cafes, walk along the breezy riverside and find the youthful spirit of the city alive and well in the Bairro Alto district. There, the narrow streets are lined with dozens of bars and restaurants, the air is filled with the sounds of jazz, electronica and reggae music, and revelers party until the sun rises. All of this and more is part of the Lisbon experience. There is much to fall in love with in the Portuguese capital, from the leafy plazas serving fresh pastries and strong espresso to the elegant streets of Chiado and the sunset views from the old Moorish Castle.
The undisputed heart-stealer of Lisbon is the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the monastery is pure fantasy. Built in the 16th century, the magnificent monastery is considered one of the worlds most beautiful and is an impressive symbol of the country’s wealth and power during the Age of Discovery. The explorer Vasco da Gama spent his final night in Portugal at the site, praying before embarking for India. The monastery was built as a “thank you” to the Virgin Mary for his successes, and his tomb lays near the entrance. Many other celebrated Portuguese historical figures are also entombed there, including poets Alexandre Herculano and Fernando Pessoa and Kings Sebastião and Manuel.
The incredible cloisters are each differently carved with sea monsters, coils of rope and coral, evoking the era of world exploration by sea. The biblical story of Joseph is remarkably depicted in the tiles that decorate the entrance to the former refectory, and the spacious interior is richly embellished with reliefs.
The Belém Tower is another icon of the Age of Discovery and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Constructed in 1515 as a fortress to watch over the capital’s harbor, the tower’s Manueline style incorporates sculptures of historical figures and stonework motifs of the Discoveries while also using Moorish-style watchtowers and delicate Venetian-style loggias.
For a bird’s eye view of the city, head to the Castle of St. George. Situated on a hill overlooking the city, it offers panoramic vistas of the surrounding cityscape and the Tejo river. The oldest parts of the castle date back to the 6th century, laid by the Romans, Visigoths and the Moors. Once a royal residence, the castle is now an oasis of peace. Visitors can climb the 18 towers, walk along the ramparts and relax in the elegant gardens surrounded by ducks, geese and peacocks. The Tower of Ulysses boasts a camera obscura that projects sights from around the capital, and a small archaeological museum is housed where medieval kings once lived in the Alcaçovas Palace.
Don’t be fooled by the plain facade of the Largo Trindade Coelho. Inside is one of the richest interiors in all of Europe. Designed in Rome, the chapel is a masterpiece of Baroque art made of ivory, gold, agate, silver, lapis lazuli and other precious materials. What looks like paintings are actually incredibly detailed mosaics, and the attached Museum of Sacred Art includes an impressive display of vestments, baroque silver and Portuguese paintings.
Lisbon is home to a thriving museum scene, and one of the best is the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum. The outstanding collection of fine art is one of Europe’s unsung treasures, home to an incredible array of Egyptian, Islamic, Greek, Roman, Asian and European masterpieces. It is a true can’t-miss in Lisbon, and the highlights include works by Rembrandt, Monet, Renoir and Van Dyck in addition to haunting Egyptian mummy masks, a fascinating collection of Hellenic coins and rare pieces of Chines porcelain.
Fast-forward to the modern art period by visiting the Berardo Museum, in the remarkable CCB building, home of one of the world’s most celebrated collections. Dozens of modern movements are represented through pieces by Picasso, Warhol, Duchamp, Dali, Pollock, Miró and other stars. The Arpad Szenes / Vieira de Silva Foundation Museum contains a fantastic collection of modern art while the Electricity Museum another great museum worth visiting.
The city is also known for its beautiful parks, gardens and other public spaces. Jardim Zoológico is one of the top zoos in Europe and always worth a visit while the Lisbon Botanical Gardens offer abundant natural beauty and much-needed respite from the city’s streets. The Ajuda Botanical Gardens are renowned for their beauty and extensive greenery as well.
Other architectural gems in the city worth seeing include Ponte Vasco da Gama, the longest bridge in Europe, and the Ponte 25 de Abril, modeled after the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The city’s many hills offer great vantage points for photo opportunities as well.
With its world-renowned museums, breathtaking architecture and bevy of great shops and restaurants, Lisbon is always an unforgettable place to visit. Those looking for a European city that’s beautiful and historic off the beaten path of London, Paris and Rome should pay a visit to Lisbon. Its unassailable architectural wonder and rich culture make it one of Europe’s most incredible cities and a truly unique destination overall.